Illustration by Joaquín Kunkel

Making It Everyone's Gym

How does the Fitness and Wellness Center try to combat against stereotypes of living a healthy and active lifestyle?

Oct 14, 2017

How is NYU Abu Dhabi’s Fitness & Wellness department getting more people moving?
The 2017 RealAD show offered many standout skits, but none left me cringing and laughing quite as much as I did during a vignette about mental health and masculinity. The scene locates two stereotyped jocks — buff, arrogant at first and insistently masculine — in a space that might be NYU Abu Dhabi’s Fitness Center. In between sets of lifting imaginary weights, the two have a conversation that starts out predictably macho but ends with one telling the other the secret behind his strength: “Counseling, Bro.” Bro Number Two shows his surprise — “I thought that was only for really heavy lifters”— and sets Bro Number One up to deliver the moral of the story: Counseling can help anyone who needs it, and if we let our masculinity stop us from seeking help, everyone loses.
This skit resonated with me because of its novel and necessary perspective on toxic masculinity, but one month after the performance, I remember the scene because of the assumptions it made about gym culture. The gym it presented had non-jocks exercising in the background, but its most conspicuous, loud users were the Bro minority in the spotlight at center stage. By showing a broad range of gym users but focusing on Bros One and Two, this scene captured the way many students may think of NYUAD’s athletic facilities and the types of students who use them. But did it also reflect how the Fitness and Wellness department tries to engage NYUAD students?
Before they arrived on campus, members of NYUAD’s Class of 2021 received this message from the Fitness and Wellness department:
“The Fitness Center at NYUAD is not just an area to develop physically; it also provides a nurturing, challenging and supportive environment that enables students to grow emotionally, personally and socially as part of their fitness journey. For many students, the Fitness Center offers opportunities to forget the pressures of college life, develop new skills and find a life-long passion for an active lifestyle.”
The email lists the many resources that students can use along that journey. They can attend group fitness classes like yoga or Zumba, join events like the Fitness Games or attend one-on-one consultations with the on-campus dietitian.
The word holistic never features in this paragraph, but by insisting that the Fitness and Wellness department can help students do more than just improve their muscle tone or build their stamina, the email represents a deliberate push against the belief that fitness begins and ends with the body. In turn, this comprehensive approach to student wellbeing rooted in pastoral care may help expand the Fitness Center’s user base.
I asked Scott Cannie, Administrative Coordinator in the Fitness and Wellness department, about the reasons that underlie this effort to change student perception of the Fitness Center and other on-campus athletic resources. “We’ve had a long conversation about how we communicate, about the images we portray, and this year we spent a lot of time thinking about engagement,” said Cannie. He suggests that three main barriers prevent students from becoming physically active. “You might feel intimidated because you’re overweight or not body confident. You might feel tired and think you can’t find the time to exercise, that you’re too busy. Or you might simply might be nervous.”
If those are the general barriers to student participation physical activity and healthy living, how does Cannie propose to break those barriers down? “We try to communicate a narrative from existing users — students, staff, and faculty — that says it’s not about going into the bottom of the gym and lifting heavy weights or doing highly technical exercises. It’s just about getting moving. We have 35 fitness classes per week, we have personal trainers available and we have a state-of-the-art gym. The opportunities to be active on campus are unparalleled.”
“How can we reduce those barriers as gatekeepers?” asked Cannie. He then offered a possible answer: “It’s about how we communicate and inform people. We want to nurture, support, and challenge, but not intimidate. A lot of our students have no experience in formalized physical activity when they come here, so it’s a question of working with our colleagues in athletics and tying it in with P.E. classes to make sure students are fit for life: Can you walk up the stairs without being out of breath? Can you get in and out of the shower without problems? Have you got good posture? Can you avoid feeling constantly tired? Are you doing thirty minutes of physical activity every day? Can we use new strategies to make sure students answer those questions with yes more often?”
To Cannie, a holistic approach to community health not only challenges easy stereotypes of gyms as jock temples where people experience acute self-consciousness, anxiety or even body shaming, but also lifts the overall health of the community to the greatest possible extent. By stressing that NYUAD wants to help all community members grow at their own pace and excel by their own metrics, the Fitness and Wellness department may eventually get enough students moving so that we cannot recognize Bros Number One and Two as the only representative users of NYUAD’s Fitness Center.
Nikolaj Nielsen is Sports Editor. Email him at
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